Respect, Acknowledgement, Dignity, and Empathy
When I was first invited to write in this blog salon—reflecting on Americans for the Arts’ staff retreat centered on cultural equity—I felt inspired by my colleagues, was ready to self-examine, and share out what I had learned.
Then Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Louisiana, followed by Philando Castile in Minnesota the very next day—all recorded on video with Castile’s murder livestreamed on social media. Then police officers were killed in Dallas and in Baton Rouge in the name of justice by two shooters. And then French citizens were murdered while watching fireworks with their families and loved ones by a supposed terrorist in Nice on Bastille Day, the equivalent of the United States’ Independence Day. Turkish citizens were killed in Istanbul as they were urged to take to the streets by their president to oppose soldiers staging a military coup—a coup which may or may not have been a setup by that very same president to consolidate political power. Every day following the retreat, it seems as though I woke up to more news of violence, intolerance, death, and hate.
If you come from a place of privilege,
stop being silent.
Say something. Do something.
The world seems like an insane, frightening, and hopeless place. I’m not African American. I’m not a police officer. I’m not French or Turkish. But I am affected and my spirit is tired and sad—so, so sad.
I was very close to backing out of writing in the blog salon. I felt that my words had died in my throat and that my heart was too heavy. What good could come from one 250-900 word blog post written by a white girl who experienced a privileged upbringing and who increasingly feels overwhelmed and withdrawn due to the state of her country and the world? Honestly, the answer is not much.
But as I continue my self-education in pursuing equity and becoming a better human to my fellowmen, the main point in essays and thought pieces that I read share the same sentiment—if you come from a place of privilege, stop being silent. Say something. Do something.
So, I shall try. I want to briefly reflect on the following words: respect, acknowledgement, dignity, and empathy.
The moment in the staff retreat that brought about the most intense and collective reactions from my colleagues was an exercise called Taps. Taps was an opportunity for us all to come together after two days of intense conversations, show appreciation for each other, and reflect on the time we had shared. In complete silence and sitting in a large circle, we counted off in groups of 7. Everyone then closed their eyes and—when called—each group’s members were asked to open their eyes and walk the room, tapping any colleagues on the knee who they felt reflected prompts read by the exercise facilitator: “Tap anyone who is a quiet leader,” “…has motivated you,” “…has shown you a new perspective.”
As I sat with my eyes closed, it made me feel good to receive many taps from my colleagues; it made me feel appreciated and respected. After the first group went, Dennis (our Taps exercise facilitator) called out, “Does anyone need tissues?” I was surprised to hear many sniffles and calls of “Yes!” and “Make that two, please!”
I slowly began to realize that many of my colleagues were moved to tears because they were in need of respect and acknowledgement. As the rounds went on, I noticed that the taps I received increased. It was as though we were truly seeing each other not just as colleagues but as fellow human beings who deserved dignity and empathy—as though we each realized when it was our turn to tap, “I have felt appreciated and respected when I received a tap, therefore you are worthy and deserving of a tap from me.”
And, then I realized: isn’t this what we are trying to do in the pursuit of cultural equity? As we acknowledge and begin dismantling our country’s history of systemic racism, understanding points of privilege, acknowledging and overcoming white fragility; and, in the arts, confronting and taking action on our own systems of inequity whether it be in grant funding, organizational leadership, etc.—we do this because we believe that every human is worthy of respect, acknowledgement, dignity and empathy.
When it was my group’s turn to tap, Dennis read out, “Tap someone who you believe has a beautiful soul.”
Our country and the world may seem like an insane, frightening, and hopeless place. But, I believe that if we educate ourselves and take action in the pursuit of equity, we can help our country and—at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna—possibly the world become a better place for future generations. A place where someone is not discriminated against because of the color of their skin, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion. Because every human being is born with a beautiful soul and is deserving of respect, acknowledgement, dignity, and empathy.
I walked around the full circle and tapped everyone’s knee because that’s what I can do. A simple gesture? Sure. But that’s what I can give. That’s what I can give to my co-workers, my fellow human beings—affirmation that everyone has a beautiful soul.